The Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program
The material conditions of being an artist in New York have a direct impact on the aesthetics and considerations taken in the studio and within an artist’s practice. While the return of the influence of Arte Povera and the prominence of post-studio practices can be attributed to ideological and conceptual decisions or to new “structures of feeling” in Raymond Williams’s terms, they can also be translated and defined through the prices of lumber, rising studio costs, and the commuting culture created through the gig economy. When critics complain of a painting-heavy New York art world, or of the saleable and gummy figuration present within galleries over the last five years, they often fail to mention the rising costs of rent for both galleries and artists alike. With these conditions in mind, nonprofits can play an outsized role in facilitating what is being produced in studios, and allowing for artists to make ambitious work that is less inscribed by economic conditions. When in 1984, the wealthy heiress Marie Walsh Sharpe placed a phone call to Joyce Robinson, she began a process that would create studio space for New York artists for the next three decades and beyond. In 1987, the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation was established, eventually becoming the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program, one of the most valued and competitive artist residency programs in the country.
The ninety-five-year-old philanthropist had stipulated in her will that the wealth of her entire estate go directly to supporting living artists after her death, and she trusted Robinson, an artist based in Colorado Springs, with exploring the best ways to make use of her largesse. The current program owes much of its success to Robinson’s shrewd, early decision making. She had gotten to know artists Philip Pearlstein and Chuck Close, as well as critic Irving Sandler, through a series of government-sponsored artist tours, and brought them on as an advisory panel for the new foundation. The artist advisory board steered the allocation of funding and took it seriously, and there was no input from non-artists. In its first few years, the foundation used its resources based on a series of Pearlstein’s round table discussions that dealt with concerns within the New York community. His lectures handled topics like career management seminars and estate planning, and discussed mutual aid networks and support systems for artists working in the city. Sandler shared a similar feeling of responsibility. He thought of himself as sweeping up after artists, and believed he had a debt to offer support and volunteer to keep the community healthy.
In its first years, the Marie Walsh Sharpe Foundation helped artists in ways familiar to many art nonprofits. A twenty-four-hour artist hotline was established (which would eventually be adopted by the New York Foundation for the Arts); along with a book on estate planning for older artists (which is still available online); and classes were created for young artists as supplements to their K-12 education, giving them advanced preparation for competitive college art programs (Dana Schutz and Patricia Trieb were counted among their students). The allocation of resources from the estate was thought of in terms of professional development through programming, consultation and advising, classes, and teaching. “Joyce was interested in education. In the early days, Harriet Shorr and Cynthia Carlson also helped teach at the high school summer program. [But] the rest of us knew that that was covered by lots of the programs, and so it made more sense to make it go directly to artists and their needs,” says artist and critic Robert Storr. Storr remembers Harriet Shorr, one of the early committee members, saying that “when an artist dies, they leave two bodies, their own body and their body of work. And [after we had developed the estate planning resource] we began orienting ourselves to working on that second body, an artist’s body of work.” Estate planning and studio space both presented universal and unavoidable necessities for artists, and so both felt they needed to be addressed with urgency. “It was for artists and their needs without a philanthropic agenda. You have to trust artists to tell you what they need,” Storr notes. “Don’t assume you know. It’s a moving target and it changes all the time. You have to ask artists what they need rather than tell them. While most foundations are structured around conflicting agendas and ideological approaches to the function of nonprofits, what Sharpe is able to do seems so simple, but is unfortunately rare.”
By 1991, the advisory committee had started to realize that there were more urgent concerns for artists than advice and consultation, and began to shift its focus to what would ultimately become a residency. After hosting a series of conferences to try to identify the needs of artists living in the city during the AIDS epidemic, the advisory committee found that there was a loud and consistent need being brought up over and over again: space to work. As New York City experienced an economic downturn in the early nineties, real estate developers priced many artists out of their studios in SoHo and Tribeca. The art scene was shifting and the oncoming rental crisis found artists desperately in need of affordable studios. In response to this increasing need, the committee began to scale back its programming and advising in favor of renting studio spaces at 433 Greenwich Street in Tribeca and gifting them to artists for year-long residency periods at no cost. That year, the Marie Walsh Sharpe Studio Program was born of these efforts.
The nonprofit has itself weathered the tumultuous uncertainty of rising rental costs, and the Marie Walsh Sharpe Studio Program can be thought of in two periods. By 2008, the original Studio Program had nearly exhausted the resources initially allocated by Marie Walsh Sharpe’s estate and was in danger of closing. Chuck Close knew the Walentas family, who operate the real estate development firm Two Trees Management throughout New York, through Jeff Byers, who along with Klaus Kertess ran the inimitable Bykert Gallery. With the financial future of the program becoming untenable, Close decided to approach them for help. Jane Walentas, wife of Two Trees’s founder David Walentas, was herself an artist. She had attended Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia and professionally had worked as a creative director at Estée Lauder. Jane and her husband had a history of philanthropy for the arts, and together had recently ensured that ten percent of students at Moore would attend the college with full ride scholarships. Phong Bui (publisher of the Brooklyn Rail and a current member of the Sharpe-Walentas artist advisory board) recalls the dinner when the artist advisory committee sat down with the Walentas family, and brought up the idea of bringing them on as partners, not just patrons. By the end of the dinner, as Bui chronicled the history and influence of patrons like the Medicis and the Menils, the Walentases were in. As the Walsh Sharpe estate funds sunset, the Walentas family chose to completely subsidize the program and give it space in one of their buildings at 20 Jay Street in Brooklyn, rent free, saving the program and giving it permanent stability. In 2008, the studio program moved from Tribeca to DUMBO. In 2014, it became the Sharpe-Walentas Studio Program.
“Jane was really pretty great. She wanted to help artists in the most genuine way there was,” says artist Tara Donovan (SW ’00), who was a participant in the residency and is now a member of the artist advisory committee. “She always had the ultimate respect for the way the artist advisory committee made decisions. Every meeting we [would] sit down and re-ask the question ‘what do artists need now’?” Program Director Kate Gavriel was tasked with overseeing the Studio Program at 20 Jay when she began working as a Program Coordinator in 2011 under the Cultural Affairs Director for Two Trees, Lisa Kim. Gavriel, who officially took a leadership role in 2017, is herself an artist and understands the particular struggles of being an artist working in New York. In 2020, Ariel Willmott, who had previously worked at Fountain House residency was hired as the Program Coordinator, and the two oversee the day-to-day operations of the residency and help organize and plan the Spring Open Studios. Artist Randy Wray was a resident in 2011, and was hired at the end of his time at the residency to be the Studio Manager of the Program. Wray represents an important thread of continuity within the Studio Program, and advocates for the needs of the current residents to the advisory committee and to leadership. In 2019, he was the recipient of the inaugural Irving Sandler Prize, which will be given each year to an artist dedicated to serving the artist community with the energy and commitment of Sandler.
The program’s mission remains consistent—a hands-off approach that uses its resources to give every participating artist a year to develop their practice without the concern of affording studio space. Each year seventeen artists are selected from a competitive pool of applications. The last few years the acceptance rate has hovered around one percent and in 2022, there were over 1900 applicants. Rising rental costs coupled with a market centered on emerging art has led to a climate that leaves mid-career artists with few resources and desperately in need of space to work in the city. Sharpe-Walentas is the only residency of its kind in New York City, offering a full year of free, private studio space in a building that is easily accessible for curators and gallerists, making much-needed studio visits more feasible. Residents have no requirements for workshops or lectures, and have no meetings or social commitments distracting from their time. “I remember the first week when I was there,” recalled artist Katie Bell (SW ’11), who attended the residency straight out of her MFA program at RISD. “I got the call from Joyce and it was just like ‘you just get the keys and that’s it!’ It felt pretty magical. Most residencies have these check-ins that make it feel like school, but from the outset this made it about having time and space.” The Studio Program’s hands-off philosophy comes from its steering. It has always been run by artists (many of whom have been past residents), who understand that the needs of an artist—while wide-ranging—require simple solutions. The artist advisory committee functions as its board, making all major decisions, choosing judges for each year’s selection jury, and providing recommendations in the application process.
Didier William (SW ’12), now on the committee, talks about how “time and space are two things that artists just don’t get. No matter how successful you get. Within applications, deadlines, families, the work still requires and needs that time and space. And it’s blatantly noticeable when work is made that doesn’t have the time, [when you see] work that is rushed. Sharpe gives unfettered, uninterrupted blocks of time, which is unheard of in New York City. And that in itself is a certain kind of care and a certain kind of privilege. Time is a certain kind of wealth that money can’t even buy and Sharpe is really good about giving it.” The residency artists’ only obligations are to participate in the DUMBO Spring Open Studios and to each give a short presentation on their work to the other artists in their cohort.
Because of this unrestricted opportunity, the residency has the feel of a graduate program without the classes, producing a meaningful cohort without the anxious rivalries that can exist in MFA programs. “That gorgeous space initiated a place to have this real depth of conversation. Everyone would stand out in the hallway ‘just for a few minutes’ to talk to each other on their way to their studios, and would end up talking for hours. There was a sense of collegiality that is extremely rare,” says Josephine Halvorson (SW ’09). While most residencies try to produce a collegial cohort by scheduling mandatory meetings or social engagements, many past residents have expressed that out of all of the residencies they’ve been a part of, they are closest to the other residents from their year at Sharpe. The irony isn’t lost on them. The environment of the residency, and its legacy of earnestly selecting the best of each year’s application pool, makes each year exciting to be a part of on its own merit. Recognizing what they’ve been chosen to be a part of, artists tend to put aside their egos and rivalries. Selection to the program is considered an honor since artists aren’t chosen based on who they know, or on their Instagram following, but rather because of the serious investigation within their work. There are many artists in each year’s class that go in without major gallery representation. Before the residency, some artists have shown their work infrequently, and Sharpe-Walentas becomes an important part of their discovery. With the acceptance rate so competitive, it feels like winning the lottery.
A different set of artists is picked as a jury by the artist advisory committee each year, often split into two separate committees for a preliminary round and for a final selection so that it becomes a more blind process. Only two criteria are considered when the jury reviews applications: excellence and studio need, regardless of where an artist is in their career. As Donovan says, the priorities are to “keep it top level. Nominate good jury people; and make sure it is diverse, across mediums, ethnicity, age, and cultures.” This means that in any given year, there will typically be a resident fresh out of an undergraduate or graduate program, an artist well into their seventies or eighties working towards a museum show, and artists working at every stage in between. In one year, Jose de Jesus Rodriguez (SW ’17) and Sharon Louden (SW ’17) were in the program together, and in the following year Louden would be Rodriguez’s professor in his MFA program at Yale. Artists are selected based on their need and use of the studio, are not allowed to keep a second studio during the time of the residency, and artists that don’t use the studio for work are asked to leave.
However, that is exceptionally rare and most artists make every sacrifice to accept. “As far as I know, it’s the most significant residency in New York for the most amount of people for the most amount of time. It’s unique because of the number of artists it can accommodate. It builds relationships that can really extend beyond the residency. With the centrality of it being in New York, people really wanted to be there. People quit jobs and moved to the city because of it. A lot of people tried to minimize their outside responsibilities, and shared a commitment to the time that we were there,” says Halvorson, who appreciated how important that time was in her life to make friends and colleagues with many people she is still rooted to today.
Bui and Donovan were invited to the artist advisory committee in the mid-2000s, joining the original members Cynthia Carlson, Chuck Close, Janet Fish, Philip Pearlstein, Irving Sandler, Harriet Shorr, and Robert Storr along with newer members Matthew Deleget, Beverly McIver (who left in 2015), Mark Greenwold, Deborah Kass, and Joel Shapiro, who joined around 2014. In the last few years, Ellen Altfest (SW ’04) and Didier William (SW ’12) have also joined the committee. Altfest was invited by Jane Walentas just before she passed away in 2020, and has since made it her life’s mission to do what Jane asked of her. As the advisory committee is in charge of selecting judges for each year’s application pool, and assists in giving important context to the work shown, “the residency is different because of how involved other artists are in it,” says Bell. “They’re the jury, so getting in feels like a gift given to you from other artists.” Since it is a gift from artists to other artists, and because the selection committee takes such care in choosing who will be selected for each year’s cohort, it also begins relationships between the artists and the committee members that selected them. Donovan was part of the selection committee that selected Bell, and the two of them have since become close friends.
As the needs of artists continue to change, the panel has had to adjust some of their criteria for considering applicants. Over the years, it has been the opportunity that artists have needed to transition into living and working in the city, such as Bell did. “I was given my residency the first year I moved to New York. I applied to it in my second year at RISD [and] I got it when I didn’t know where I was going to move to. I had only been to New York once, I had only been to a Yankees game, and I was intimidated by all of it,” she remembers. “When I got the residency, it was so many things to me. It was access to the city. It got me in New York but it also got me sixteen friends who were doing amazing things. I got to go to their openings and meet their dealers, and when there were studio visits, we encouraged people to stop by and see others’ work too.”
The time and space to make work has also gifted artists with some of their most formative experiences. For Didier William, Sharpe provided a place to play with materials and find the practice for which he is now celebrated. “Prior to that I was working out of my apartment so when I got to Sharpe I definitely scaled up. Before the residency, I had left the figure behind. Once I got there, I slowly started to bring the figure back in. I made I Remember When I Was A Little Girl (2013) while I was there, and that was the painting that really changed my work, and made me think about what I wanted to do with gender, sex and sexuality, skin, how I wanted to construct and reconstruct the body. Everything had been leading up to that painting, which was the last painting I made at Sharpe.”
It has become a reality that artists further along in their careers still find themselves facing studio precarity, and what was originally thought of as a program to help emerging artists get settled in New York has now shifted to prioritizing and addressing the needs of New York artists in danger of losing their studio practice. “Our program addresses one of the most critical needs of working artists, securing studio space,” says Gavriel. “One might initially think our participants would be younger, emerging artists, but this is not always the case. In the spirit of an early program supporter, the Richard Florsheim Art Fund, which focused on artists sixty and older, reserving space for older artists continues to be important to us. Beyond that, we’ve seen a change in our applicant pool, and more established artists are applying than in previous years. I believe this reflects the rising expense of renting a studio, which can be burdensome even for artists who have had commercial success.” Storr adds, “For a lot of artists, this was their “up against the wall” moment, and we could give them some breathing space. [Some of the residents are] established artists who were now facing sudden studio precarity.”
Mira Schor was a resident in both its second year as a program in 1992, and also 2020. “The reason I applied both times was the same: the spaces I was working in each time were too small for what I was working on or interested in working on,” Schor says. “I primarily have worked in domestic spaces over the years, pushing the limitations of space as far as I could, but at two crucial times I needed more space and a space dedicated to artmaking only. I had started work on a work called War Frieze [in 1991] that imagined an endless painting on militarism and aggression, and I was limited by my home studio. In previous years, at my small loft on Lispenard Street, I had found that the signs of my domestic life—a modest kitchen, a sofa, a TV but all in one physical space with the studio—were enough to make it a bit harder for studio visitors to take the work seriously so the Sharpe studio was very beneficial in appearing conventionally professional.” But almost thirty years later, Schor felt ready to apply again. “I was haunted by the desire to finally address the grand tradition of painting—the masterworks of artists like Courbet. Standing in one particular studio [at Sharpe, during open studios] I suddenly saw the paintings I could do; I mean the exact works with specificity. I knew from the experience of older artists I admire greatly, that I was aging into a time when I would no longer physically be able to do such work, so I applied and thankfully I got in and incredibly got that studio and it was beautiful, perfectly proportioned, large enough for me to work on 9 by 18 feet paintings.”
In 2021, the residency presented the first Philip Pearlstein Award to artist Ronald Hall, which reflects some of these growing considerations. Pearlstein was a commercial graphic designer before he was able to work full-time at his practice. The award honors his trajectory, and each year will go to artists with a “non-abstract” painting practice, favoring those who have come to their artistic practices after working in other fields. The residency has also introduced the Irving Sandler Prize, which goes to an artist that has demonstrated a commitment to serving other artists and the community. Sandler was notably the only member of the original committee who wasn’t a practicing artist, but was invited because of all of his work in supporting artists. “Irving was a different kind of critic,” says Bui. “He believed that history was happening in artists’ studios. He felt that he needed to be in artists’ studios and needed to be going out with them to document the scene. Because he actually made an effort to be a part of the community, artists loved and trusted him, and treated him like he was one of them.” Sandler recognized the amount of support artists needed to form communities and continue their practices, and felt being a critic carried with it a responsibility of care, of sweeping up after artists.
The artist residency can also represent much needed support in a moment in an artist’s practice that is rarely discussed. The uncertainty of the middle space can be difficult to articulate to anyone without an artistic practice, the zones of underrepresentation and the lack of confidence that can ensue from your work not being considered by the market. “The studios were so critical for me. It came at a time when I really had to decide if I wanted to do this. I had been out of school for a few years and I was just making and surviving in New York City,” William recalls. “The system has figured out how to easily truncate an art education, there’s a whole industry now of hiring art educators to provide this short trajectory for students; and then there’s blue chip artists, but it’s hard to articulate that place in the middle. There are no mentors. It’s super easy to fall into the pit of self-doubt. When I got the studio, it was a vote of confidence from a group of people I respected that I should continue doing this. It was that vote of confidence, that these people much further along than me know it’s worth doing. Knowing how powerful that was for me, when I was invited to be on the committee, I was excited to be able to pass that on and do that for a younger artist.”
Recently, Sharpe-Walentas has also made it more of a concern to make each cohort more diverse across disciplines, making practices that engage with photography and performance, for example, more present within the residency. Donovan has advocated for artists like Kim Brandt (SW ’21), whose practice involves choreography and dance, and who was able to use the studio to create a series of time-based conceptual works and drawings. In recent years, they have committed to giving space to artists dealing with image and video practices like D’Angelo Lovell Williams (SW ’21), who used the studio space to work on a large-scale textile work and plan upcoming shows.
The financial freedom and facilities of the residency have allowed artists to take risks within their practice, facilitating periods of dramatic shifts and experimentation. “I decided to make really big work since this was my opportunity,” says Bell. “So I started gathering hot tubs from Pennsylvania and putting them on these wooden stilts. I had only worked on painting and 2D stuff prior to that.” Todd Bienvenu (SW ’17) pushed texture in his work while at Sharpe-Walentas, caking on the thick paint and heavy impasto his paintings are now known for. Osamu Kobayashi (SW ’17) used his time at the residency program to make paintings so large they couldn’t be taken out of the studio on their stretchers. Patricia Ayres (SW ’20) filled her space with sculpture working towards her first solo show. “I used my studio obsessively. I created a new body of work for my first solo show. It consisted of twelve sculptures that were exhibited in Los Angeles, followed by a solo booth at Liste Art Fair in Basel, where I showed six more sculptures. Since my time at the residency was during the pandemic, I worked in complete isolation. I had no choice but to completely trust my own instincts. Having unlimited access to the space gave me the opportunity to push new boundaries and create large scale sculptures; navigating the size, weight and volume entirely on my own, which was very empowering.”
Although the Studio Program provides what may be the largest studio many New York artists will ever have, it pales in comparison to the community and what can be learned and shared among the cohort. “I miss getting to see people’s work evolve the most, getting to see them chew on the same work over time, really seeing the commitment that artists have to their work and the challenges to their work day in and day out, how do you solve the riddles, that’s what I really miss,” says Halvorson. “That longer term observation, that pursuit that’s longer than a studio visit, adaptation [that can be seen] in a longer-term way. That’s something that was really effective about that residency. Getting to witness the slow and gradual progress that an artist makes.”
Not every residency has the benefit of being fully subsidized, but there are parts of Sharpe-Walentas that can and should be instructive to other nonprofit arts organizations. Nonprofit resources need to be used in simple, direct methods, meeting artists’ needs by finding them space and time to create. The program realized quickly that education and professional development was far less important of a need than time and space, and analyzed what was already being addressed by other nonprofits. The residency keeps a small staff, and decisions are made primarily by the artist advisory board, many of whom were past residents. There’s a lesson to be learned from Sharpe, how simplicity has created its own currency and reputation, how time and space are a rare gift to artists. “My eye or bent is to speak up for work that is risky, asking tough questions, uncertain in all the right ways, work that is not trying to follow market trends, but invents new forms in its most honest and clumsy way,” says William, on what he plans on bringing to the application evaluations in the upcoming year. “That’s the work that really needs an opportunity like this because the market doesn’t necessarily support it. That’s what Sharpe does and provides—a space for that.”